Tomorrow, Sotheby’s holds its sale of Indian Modern art, and on Thursday Christie’s auctions off South Asian Modern and Contemporary art. These sales, which come during a dramatic upswing in prices for art from the subcontinent, feature work that is being drawn out of the hands of the first buyers and going to collectors eager to establish a place for Indian art in global culture.
Why would this be a good time to buy Indian art? Chinese Contemporary art has gained much attention as a new category, but other emerging markets are beginning to catch up with their own stories. One of the truisms art-world professionals like to reel off is that collectors prefer to buy art that has a connection to the time — and place — in which they made their money. With fortunes amassed from natural resources powering the world economy right now, it should come as no surprise that Russian Contemporary art is taking off. With a dynamic economy, Indian art is finding its footing, too.
What distinguishes Indian art from that of other emerging markets is that it has a generation of Modern painters. Both China and Russia must deal with the cultural legacy of totalitarianism, which essentially means they have no significant art for much of the 20th century. But India has a different history. From the 1950s onward, there was a generation of Indian painters — Maqbool Fida Husain, Francis Newton Souza, Ram Kumar, Sayed Haider Raza, and Vasudeo S. Gaitonde — who combined their own painterly tradition with Modernism’s insights. These artists were a scrappy lot. India had no gallery network, nor did it have an established art market. “Artists had to be their own self-promoters,” Christie’s Contemporary and Modern Indian specialist, Yamini Mehta, said. “The ones who survived had the personalities to promote themselves.”
This they did by appealing to foreigners at home and seeking out gallery representation abroad, which explains how most of this generation of Indian art ended up in Switzerland, in Norway, and scattered around the West. Diplomats, pharmaceutical executives stationed in India, and other expatriates were the first buyers. This left many of the best works hidden from view.
A run-up in prices in the late 1990s, and the growing economic power of nonresident Indians, have drawn many of those works onto the market. The first generation of buyers is now selling — mostly to nonresident Indians who are reclaiming some of their patrimony — thereby creating a bit of a glut of work and a momentary opportunity.
Sotheby’s has several works by Mr. Husain, including Lot 11, “Untitled” (1953), estimated at between $100,000 and $150,000. Depicting a seated woman holding a lamp, this painting is a very good example of a prized period in the artist’s work. Still painting in his 90s, Mr. Husain also had a brief period in which he painted landscapes like “Peeli Dhoop” (1964), estimated at between $100,000 and $150,000. “Peeli Dhoop” translates as “Golden Sunshine” and is one of the very few landscapes by the artist that does not include a human figure. Mr. Husain is the biggest name in Indian Modern art, but another important figure is Souza, who died in 2002. Sotheby’s has his “Untitled” (1964), estimated at between $60,000 and $80,000, and “Head of a King” (1961), estimated at between $100,000 and $150,000. Both works will feel familiar to anyone who remembers the popular art of the 1960s. So does Souza’s “Palm Beach, Miami, Florida” (1971), estimated at between $40,000 and $60,000.
The sale at Christie’s takes a different tack by unifying South Asian art in both the Modern and Contemporary periods. Anish Kapoor, Subodh Gupta, and Raqib Shaw have made significant names for themselves in both auction houses’ Contemporary art sales. At Christie’s, you can see the sweep of Indian painting over the last 50 years.
There are Husains like “Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12” (1971–72), estimated at between $600,000 and $800,000, and Souzas like the untitled nude from 1961 that is estimated at between $350,000 and $500,000, not to mention Mr. Gaitonde’s untitled work painted in 1960 and estimated at between $300,000 and $500,000.
Christie’s also has later works like Tyeb Mehta’s untitled painting from 1981, estimated at between $600,000 and $800,000, that depicts a female figure floating on fields of gray, green, and black. The time span reaches all the way up to T.V. Santosh’s “Traces of an Ancient Error,” estimated at $150,000 to $200,000, which was completed just last year.
All the trends of economics and culture are working in India’s favor. With a growing class of professionals who want their own artists’ works and a group of younger artists making their names in the global market for Contemporary artworks, these important forebears should continue to gain value.